For the first time since 1999, the Gonzaga Bulldogs advanced to the Elite Eight where they would meet a young but gritty Duke team. On the line was a trip to the Final Four in Indianapolis.
Early the two teams showcased why they were two of the best offensive teams in the country with fast paced, back and forth action that included five lead changes in the first three minutes of the game. Duke was able to gain some momentum and take a 14-6 lead after two made shots by Tyus Jones and a three-point basket from Matt Jones who turned out to be the X-factor in this game.
“If I found myself open, I was going to shoot it,” Jones said. “Luckily we have guys like Jahlil and Justise to take us home—and Quinn —so I took a back seat to them and obviously we’re here in this position.”
Gonzaga appeared flustered by Duke’s defense and the Blue Devils were able to gain a comfortable 23-12 lead midway through the first half. Some thought the Bulldogs would go away quietly but Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer and freshman center Domantas Sabonis refused to go out without a fight. The duo scored Gonzaga’s next ten points to pull them within three, forcing Coach K to call a timeout. Sabonis’s physical play sent him to the bench with three fouls with 1:18 left to go in the first and Duke went into halftime with a 31-26 lead despite only shooting 35% in the first 20 minutes of the game.
Gonzaga came out in the second half on fire scoring twelve points in the first four minutes to gain a 38-34 lead over Duke. Their largest lead of the game and Duke’s largest deficit of the entire tournament. The young Blue Devils remained unbothered scoring nine straight points to regain a five point lead over the Bulldogs. Much like the first half, Gonzaga refused to go away quietly chipping away at Duke’s lead little by little. Down 53-51 with an opportunity to tie the game, Kyle Wiltjer, the Bulldogs leading scorer, missed a wide open layup with 4:51 left to play that ended up being the turning point of the game.
“You make that thing 499 times out of 500. It was just a fluke,” coach Mark Few said. “It just didn’t fall in. When that kind of moment happens, you’ve just got to shake your head, and it’s not your night.”
And it wasn’t Gonzaga’s night.
Duke held the Bulldogs to just one point in the last 5:43 of the game and ended their season with a 66-52 win sending Coach K to his 12th Final Four. He is now tied with John Wooden for most Final Four appearances as a head coach.
“Just being with these kids and sharing this moment and this Final Four, I’m so happy, I’m so happy for them and to be with them,” Coach K said. “I love my team. … They’re taking me to Indy, which is kind of neat.”
Freshman Justise Winslow had another great game in his hometown of Houston, TX leading the Blue Devils with 16 points.
“Coach has been to however many Final Fours, but this is his first one with this group, and that’s what means the most,” Winslow said. “Living in this moment, living right now.”
Just one year after an embarrassing first round loss to Mercer, Duke has earned another shot at the national title. They will face a resilient Michigan State team that is having a tournament run similar to last year’s UConn championship team. The match-up between Coach Izzo and Coach K will be just as interesting as the match up between the teams.